Wednesday, April 20, 2016

La brigada de los carpinteros: reflection on a sojourn in the Dominican Republic

An unhappy Hispaniolan Woodpecker

In January I migrated to the Dominican Republic to serve as a research assistant for Josh LaPergola, a doctoral candidate from Cornell University. Josh is researching the behavioral ecology of the Hispaniolan Woodpecker, a charismatic species that nests colonially in palm trees. Unfortunately, the field season came to early end when Josh had a serious climbing accident. He ultimately required medical evacuation to the United States. (He is recovering well.)

Unexpectedly home, I’ve spent a lot of time puttering around the house, processing and reflecting upon my experience in the Dominican Republic. I’d like to share some of my thoughts.


Graduate research can be open-ended. I had the idea that a graduate project attempts to answer questions drafted at the project’s conception. Well—that is sometimes the case, but many other projects constantly evolve. The more time spent studying a system, the more questions that arise.

How to bleed a bird! Next time you find a bird in your hand, part the feathers on the underside of the wing. There’s a pipe there—great for stabbing!

A woodpecker chick at two weeks, ready to surrender a drop of blood for the sake of science.

Dominican Spanish is…different. Pronunciation is relaxed—the letter s in particular is often dropped. The convergent pronunciation of estás and está frequently bewildered me, but the locals don’t seem to notice the ambiguity.

If a Dominican kid shows up at your door and brags that he owns a bazooka, he is not lying.

Palms form a unique community. Their lichen-plastered trunks are patrolled by lichen-mimicking mantids. Palmchats obsessively construct massive stick nests, which in turn house myriad other animals from Greater Antillean Grackles to fungi. And Hispaniolan Woodpeckers provide apartments for many other species. Bats often commandeer the old cavities. If the chambers flood, tree frogs and mosquitoes capitalize on the arboreal pools.

Palmchats--monkeys of the bird world

See it?

Knots! In order to climb the palms, we had to learn many aspects of technical tree climbing, including lots of knots. Give me a strand of cord, and I can tie you a Klemheist, a bowline, a clove hitch, a half hitch, a fisherman’s knot…

I am very privileged. Many of the country folk were incredulous that we made a living studying birds. “I wish I could do your work,” Ricardo the foreman said one day as we passed him saddling his mule for the day.


Unparalleled camaraderie. Foremost I will miss my coworkers Amy, Josh, Kiera, and Shelly. Field jobs such as this forge deep friendships—we live together, work together, and depend on each other, becoming a family.

Josh, Shelly, Kiera,and Amy demonstrate the rigors of biological research

Avocados. I’m from California and thought I was an avocado snob. But these Dominican avocados rocked my world. We bought them fifteen at a time. They are huge; they are creamy. Guacamole was a staple in our house.

Tostones (fried plantains) with fresh guacamole

Luis, our trusty and congenial taxi driver. Whenever we needed groceries, we would summon him for a ride down to Jarabacoa. As we lounged in the truck bed, the breeze whistled—as did scores of young men as we passed. Although their amorous displays were directed at my female coworkers, I retaliated by blowing many a kiss.

If you ever find yourself in the vicinity of Jarabacoa and need some wheels, here's the number to call

The neighborhood kids. Whenever they were bored (which was often), the troupe of neighborhood children would appear at the back door. Two year-old Reuben was content to roll giggling on the floor. Ten year-old Evenson found every excuse to visit and try to woo Amy, with whom he was hopelessly in love. Thirteen year-old Cris wandered over to boss Evenson and to make half-hearted attempts to learn English.

The birds. It was great to live with new birds for several months! The boisterous Gray Kingbird, the quizzical Smooth-billed Ani, the psychedelic Broad-billed Tody, the minute Vervain Hummingbird…these were all new species for me, and they quickly became familiar neighbors.

Black-faced Grassquit


Cold showers. Our water was piped up from the river and it was frigid. Despite our sweat and grime we dreaded the shower, delaying bathing for as many days as we could stand.

Laundry. We used a bucket and a plunger. It never quite got the stink out of my clothes.

The moldy house. It was humid. Mold thrived on the walls and ceiling. We waged war, but our bleach and sponges and half-assed attitudes toward hygiene could not overthrow the inevitable onward march of mildew.

Amy prepares for a valiant but vain war against the Kingdom of Fungi

Unsafe tap water. Here at home, I press a button on my fridge and cold, delicious water spews forth. In the Dominican Republic, we had to walk up to the neighborhood colmado once a day and shell out forty-five pesos (roughly a dollar) for a five-gallon jug of purified water. 

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